Kansas City Library’s New Software Lending Library

Inspired by the coming of ultra-fast gigabit broadband Internet to their city this year, the Kansas City Public Library has devised something new for public access computing – lending software over the Internet.

With the help of National Science Foundation funding and a Mozilla Ignite Challenge, the library is developing the capacity to allow anyone with a Kansas City Public Library card to use software (like Adobe and Microsoft applications) hosted by the library, just like they might if they came to the library to use one of the public access computers. The twist is that library users won't need to come to the library to access and use this software.

I learned of this project during a recent visit to Kansas City and also from GCN.com and The Digital Shift. I tracked down the Library Director, Crosby Kemper III, and digital branch manager, David LaCrone, to tell me more about what they’re doing.

A Most Unusual Library Administrator

Crosby Kemper III has got to be one of the most unique library administrators in the country. He’s the scion of an illustrious Missouri family. Kemper Arena is named after his grandfather and his father started the Kansas City Symphony. He is a Yale educated historian, a former chairman and CEO of NASDAQ listed, UMB Financial Corp, the co-founder of a libertarian think tank, the Show-Me Institute, and as library director, a leader in the renaissance of Kansas City.

He is adept at fundraising and finding other resources with the intent to provide the best free public library programming in the country. The library’s events program invites top authors and historians to speak including staged political debates. He admires public programs like the 92nd Street Y in New York and also the programs at the Baltimore and Seattle public libraries. I heartily recommend Carolyn Szczepanski’s in-depth online bio of Crosby Kemper III in The Pitch.

The Accidental Digital Librarian

David LaCrone came to the Kansas City library in 2007, and has been digital branch manager for just a year. He has a University of Michigan information science degree, and has worked in many libraries. He didn’t expect to be a leader in the digital library movement, but now finds himself working on a new MacArthur Foundation funded Kansas City Digital Media Lab, where teenagers can learn state-of-the-art multimedia like designing video games and creating videos. The library also hosts a digital repository on research on the city called KC Research, which includes a major civil war history site. The library is also committed to innovations around digital inclusion. They maintain 770 public computers and are developing free public ‘research computer labs’ in which patrons can get as much time as they need to work on job applications, preparing resumes, preparing for the GED exam, or doing other research. They expect to have these operating the first quarter of 2014.

The Intent of the Software Lending Library

To quote the Mozilla Ignite proposal, the intent of the project is that:

"Users will visit the catalog/website to schedule a time to use a particular piece of software. Using the ultra-high speed connection to deliver the applications will allow users to do homework, perform routine tasks and generate creative output from typically low-performing or older computers and devices. The Lending Library has tremendous potential to mediate the effects of unequal access to productivity tools in the community. As KC-area libraries develop a comprehensive digital inclusion strategy to coincide with Google Fiber's saturation in neighborhoods, the Software Lending Library can provide immediate access for trainers and trainees. We can marry the use of an application to training and education about its value."

How The Lending Library Idea Came About

The inspiration for this project came out of the Hacking The Gigabit City hackathon in March, 2013, sponsored by Mozilla Ignite. This was an event in which good ideas for utilizing ultra-fast broadband were paired with techies willing to volunteer their time to build out the concepts. David LaCrone pitched the idea of a software lending library, which was then taken up by hackathon organizers, Will Barkis, Glenn Ricart, and Aaron Deacon. The hackers ended up building a prototype over the course of a few days and demonstrated it soon after.

They expect to have a beta version of the lending library up and running by the end of September, and they are hoping to have it ready for use by patrons by the first of the year when there will be a significant number of Google Fiber customers.

How It Will Work

The library wants to offer software that is prohibitively expensive for low-income people, like applications in Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office, Rosetta Stone language tutorials, Quickbooks, and professional video editing software. To do this, they are creating a web interface and scheduling mechanism for the software lending library. The library will host the applications to be lent in a data center, and applications will be lent to patrons on a one-user-per-license at a time basis, exactly as they are on public access computers in the library. The library plans to buy additional licenses to meet demand – several dozen for major titles.

Patrons with a valid Kansas City Library card will log in online and then reserve the software they need. The website will email them a confirmation with a one-time link that initiates a remote desktop for a specified period of time. The remote desktop will give them access to the software they want to use. The remote desktop will work on nearly any computer connected to the Internet. 

The user experience will be very similar to having the application installed on their own computer. Documents or images that users create will be stored on their own computers. 

Training and Support

The library will support the use of sophisticated software by offering online tutorials and also in-person classes at the libraries. These classes are already in place but currently poorly attended. David LaCrone said that he hopes the lending library will increase demand for their hands-on digital literacy classes.


David LaCrone and library director, Crosby Kemper III, both acknowledged that this may be something new for software companies, but they said that they’re eager to engage them about any concerns. Crosby mentioned that the lending library is certainly a legal alternative to piracy and will also serve to increase the user base for the applications they’ll be lending.

The Good News for Librarians

David and Crosby are very clear that once they have everything worked out for lending software they plan to make the source code and documentation open source, very much in the tradition of the Mozilla foundation. This will allow other libraries to replicate the service without paying licensing fees. Libraries will still need to acquire licenses for the software they plan to lend, but the lending library service itself would be free from licensing fees.

They expect that the solution will work well with conventional broadband. This is good news for communities that do not have the ultra-fast broadband Kansas City residents will have.

This project represents an innovative approach to public access technology and is an excellent example of Edge Initiative Benchmark 2. The Edge Initiative and the Edge Benchmarks help libraries evaluate and continually improve their public technology services for their communities.


Image: courtesy of Kansas City Library and Mozilla Foundation